The distance between London and a completely different world is surprisingly short. It doesn’t take long to travel from Heathrow Airport or the city’s busy streets to a slower, more relaxed pace of life, stuffed with charm and overflowing with good old-fashioned romance.
From the stately splendour of Cliveden House to cute boutique properties tucked in the woods, the areas around London is positively spoilt when it comes to lovely country house hotels.
Here are three of our favourites for escaping to the countryside, just a short drive from Heathrow.
Who actually lives here? That’s what you’ll be thinking when you drive up the sweeping driveway of this grand country pile, pictured above, catching just a hint of the hundreds of acres of National Trust Gardens around the property. Well, for a night or three, the answer could be ... you.
In the past, the 1666 manor has been home to three dukes, an earl and a prince. A special The Butler Did It package plays on its chequered past, including a private history talk. It’s all very Downton Abbey which, as it happens, was filmed an hour’s drive away at Highclere Castle (you can’t stay overnight at this country house but you can tour the estate and gardens).
You’ll feel like one of the coddled aristocracy at Cliveden. There’s a gorgeous spa with outdoor pool, high tea with pretty-as-a-picture cakes and fizz, and local, seasonal dining in the acclaimed André Garrett Restaurant.
For us, though, Ratty in Wind in the Willows said it best: there really is nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. And there are really no boats half so much worth clambering aboard as Cliveden’s flotilla of restored vintage launches. Options include afternoon tea or a private Champagne picnic while meandering down the Thames. Bliss.
Doubles from £350 per night; clivedenhouse.co.uk
How to get there: From Heathrow Airport it will take you about 30 minutes to reach Cliveden via the M4 motorway.
Food comes first at this self-described ‘restaurant with rooms’ in the heart of the New Forest. With tables spilling from the open dining room and greenhouse onto stone patios overlooking the sloping lawns, it’s an understandably popular spot for weekend brunch or a Sunday roast.
Because the food isn’t simply seasonal here; the menu can change at the flick of a chef’s knife or a pinch of a forager’s fingers. Yes, there really is a dedicated forager, and a kitchen gardener. The veggies that go into ‘zero mile’ mushroom risotto and wood-roasted golden beetroot come straight from that garden, while dishes like braised mutton and Hampshire wood pigeon are regionally sourced.
The rooms are primarily there for visitors who love the food – and the wine, and the cocktails – so much that they want to stay a little longer. Frankly, we’re not sure why anyone wouldn’t want to. And the accommodation is far from an afterthought. Each room has an enormous, marshmallow bed and walk-in monsoon shower. Some have freestanding bathtubs, while the cabins, tucked in the woods, are the ultimate country hideaways.
There’s also a cute spa, with treatment rooms housed in an old potting shed and a shepherd’s hut.
It all adds up to a country house hotel that’s every bit as charming as the New Forest ponies that graze freely on winding lanes and woodland campsites (paying little heed to traffic or campers).
Doubles from £155; thepighotel.com
How to get there: You’ll have a 2-hour drive through gorgeous Hampshire countryside before reaching the New Forest and Brockenhurst. If you can tear yourself away, the port city of Southampton is close by. It's home to the Seacity Museum, where you’ll find an interactive model of the Titanic, which set sail from here on its fateful voyage in 1912. Or head to Bournemouth, known for its 7 miles of pristine beaches, Pier and botanical gardens.
Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire
More a way of life than a hotel (or at least the way of life we’d like), this boho-chic hideaway is subtle luxury at its best. While entrance to most Soho House properties is restricted or by invitation only, non-members can book accommodation at this country house hotel that’s a mere two-hour drive from London.
Life would be very unfair otherwise, because this place is dreamy. The bedrooms and cosy cabins, some of which jut over the water, are decorated in classic muted shades and tactile textures.
You can ‘rough it’ in a bell tent. OK, not really. You’d still be sleeping in a huge bed with rugs, armchairs and wood-burning stove, with hay bales and a fire pit outside for marshmallow-toasting.
The place is a grown-ups’ playground with horseback riding from the onsite stables, wooden boats you can row out from the pontoon, and even five-a-side football.
Food and drink are served in the Main Barn, which looks more like a stylish bar and restaurant to us, with an open-plan area and plenty of cosy nooks, crannies and mezzanines. Book ahead for the weekend Farm Feast, with heaps of fresh, local food and brunch cocktails.
Throw in a Cowshed spa and a pool housed in a boathouse and, well... can we move in?
Cabins from £330 per night; sohofarmhouse.com
How to get here: Take the M40 away from London, and before long you’ll be enjoying spectacular views of the Chiltern Hills, join the A34 and you’ll soon arrive in Chipping Norton, at the heart of the Oxfordshire countryside.
For a day trip, the city of Oxford is just 21 miles away. Known worldwide for its 12th century university, you’ll find splendid architecture, history and culture throughout the city.